Previous studies have shown that social isolation, or having few interactions with others, is associated with an increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline. However, little was know about the emotional isolation, which refers to feeling alone rather than being alone.
Robert S. Wilson, PhD from Rush University Medical Center, and his colleagues, analyzed the association between loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease in 823 older adults over a four year period. Participants underwent evaluations that included questionnaires to assess loneliness, classifications of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and testing of their thinking, learning and memory abilities. Loneliness was measured on a scale of one to five, with higher scores indicating more loneliness.
At the first examination, participants’ average loneliness score was 2.3. During the study period, 76 individuals developed dementia that met criteria for Alzheimer’s disease. Risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease increased approximately 51 percent for each point on the loneliness score, so that a person with a high loneliness score (3.2) had about 2.1 times greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than a person with a low score (1.4).
According to Wilson, loneliness is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, not an early sign of the disease. Autopsies were performed on 90 individuals who died during the study. Loneliness during life was not related to any of the hallmark brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, including nerve plaques and tangles, or tissue damaged by lack of blood flow.
“Humans are very social creatures. We need healthy interactions with others to maintain our health,” said Wilson. “The results of our study suggest that people who are persistently lonely may be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of age-related neuropathology.” The mechanism that does link dementia and loneliness is unclear. Wilson encourages more study to look at how negative emotions cause changes in the brain.
MEDICA.de; Source: Rush University Medical Center